There have always been buildings in Berlin that are often blasphemed about with a lot of cultural and social prejudice. In the imperial era, the cathedral or today’s Bode-Museum were the victims of such self-assured outrage; in the 1920s it was the tenements of the imperial era, in the Nazi era the buildings of Berlin Modernism. After the war, the buildings on today’s Karl-Marx-Allee were disliked as “sugar bakery” to the west, while the SED denigrated the colorful international style of the Hansaviertel as un-German.
And what is popularly condemned today? One property is at the top of the list of buildings to be despised in Berlin, far ahead of the Wasserklops on Breitscheidplatz, the cool conversion of Mehringplatz with social housing, the exposed concrete facade of the Deutsche Oper: the Alexa. Not that – that Alexa.
The Alexa has 15 million visitors in normal years
The consumer building has been one of the most successful shopping centers in Germany since it opened in 2007. It has a permanent occupancy rate of 99 percent of the business and restaurant space, and in the last normal year 2019 it counted more than 15 million visitors and customers, many of them tourists. As a visitor attraction in Berlin, the Alexa beats all parks, museums, libraries and football stadiums by far.
The roughly 80 shops on 54,000 square meters of usable space – the Humboldt Forum is about the same size – attracts the public just as much as the constant use of the wide corridors and the expansive restaurant area with sometimes larger, sometimes smaller events. It was sensible that the incumbent Governing Mayor Michael Müller inaugurated one of the first vaccination stations in a shopping center in Germany on October 1st: the crowd is almost guaranteed.
Opposed to all these advantages is the demonstrative contempt for the world that sees itself as cultivated: What a kitsch! Those arches overlapping in arabic fashion that seem to float abruptly in the air at the corner; these rich pink, almost completely closed concrete facades with pleated wave relief; these gold-colored wall coverings in the style of Czech Cubism of the 1930s; these lattice and ceiling paintings based on the model of American consumer Art Deco; these colorful and playful floor patterns, railings, glittering lamps and mosaics.
The Alexa as an architectural sin: who approved it?
Hardly anyone analyzes this as coolly as the architecture critic Bernhard Schulz: After all, the Alexa is an “interesting attempt to visually enhance a banal housing,” he says. Kaye Geipel, editor of the influential Bauwelt magazine, judges that the facades are “downright nice and harmless” in view of the latest developments, especially the expansion of the Kaufhof on Alexanderplatz, which was approved almost at the same time.
The Berlin architecture theorist Turit Fröbe is quite different. She became known for her funny annual “tear-off calendar”. Frobe, known in the magazine Cicero, gives her goose bumps at the sight of Alexa. After all, it was a “good architectural sin” because you “involuntarily get angry” and ask yourself: “How could that happen? Who approved that? In which prison is the architect sitting? “
Klaus Wowereit called the Alexa a “place of ugliness”
Which architect? The system was designed by a conglomerate, which is rare even in the confusing post-turn architectural history of Berlin: The Viennese Ortner & Ortner made the first draft. They once became famous in the 1980s with their witty and ironic designs that contradicted every tradition, and since the 1990s they belonged in the orbit of the Berlin Senate Building Director, Hans Stimmann, who was very traditional at the time.
However, the planning of the 2.4 hectare property, which was realized between 2004 and 2007, was done by Berlin contact offices, the American large office RTKL from Baltimore and the Portuguese house architect Soane Sierra and Fonciére Euris, the Portuguese José Manuel Quintela da Fonseca. The arabizing decorations, which aroused particular displeasure, are often attributed to him.
Der Spiegel wrote of the “Graus”, Klaus Wowereit, then governing mayor, outragedly described the complex as a “place of ugliness” in 2007 and called on his Senator for Urban Development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer: “Please make sure that there is no one more at Alexanderplatz such a block. “Klaus Staeck, then President of the Academy of Arts, stated:” Alexa, nothing will come of us. “The architecture critic Ulf Meyer stated:” As ugly as the night “. The town councilor for construction in Mitte, Dorothee Dubrau, said: “Bunker”.
Even the discrediting reference to the use by the Gestapo of the police headquarters once standing here, which was known as the “Red Zwingburg”, is not missing in the condemnation of Alexa. And the co-architect Oliver Roser confessed immediately after the opening: “The first drafts for the Alexa were simpler, not that screaming long-distance effect.”
Who is right – the architecture critics or the public?
So, despite all their experience, are architecture connoisseurs wrong, and does the public succumb to populist tastes? Do the two rush past each other, as is so often the case when absolute judgments are made, when only the surface impression counts?
Or maybe it doesn’t really matter what architecture a shopping mall has? Is the location right next to Alexanderplatz much more important, the proximity to the densely populated residential areas on the side of Karl-Marx-Allee and Friedrichshains? Do the range of shops and restaurants, the excellent connections to the S-Bahn, U-Bahn and regional trains, buses and trams and the parking garage with its 1,600 spaces count more than the architecture?
Certainly behind the criticism of Alexa there is a good deal of social and cultural self-assurance of those who, according to their own understanding, only go to such shopping malls when it “absolutely has to be”, that is to say to the electronics store or to quickly buy a shirt because one has spilled during the meal.
The Alexa, the criticism and the class struggle
In the taste criticism of the Alexa, a hint of class struggle shimmers through. Because there is no doubt that Alexa is made to inspire alleged mass society, not its self-appointed elite. And the investors also see the exalted architecture as a means of this enthusiasm. Otherwise the Alexa would not look the way it does.
This shopping center would have been far cheaper than the 290 million euros invested at the time, and it would have been planned, approved and built more quickly, saving interest, if the design had followed the angular-clear-cool pattern with a natural stone or plastered facade that has been dominant in Berlin since the 1990s. But the Alexa is downright an attack on this doctrine.
Its gaudy facades and lavish interiors are not just a concrete shell for technology, shops and restaurants. They are an advertising medium. Alexa should attract attention, and it also has to be in a fiercely competitive market: Berlin is as well supplied with inner-city shopping centers as hardly any other metropolis in Europe.
The Alexa is, if you include the use and the requirements of the client in the architectural criticism – which would be a matter of course for every museum, concert hall or housing criticism! – by no means unsuccessful, on the contrary, extremely successful. While the noble, restrained Potsdamer-Platz-Arkaden have long been in crisis and are currently being radically rebuilt, the Alexa has been functionally adapted, but not fundamentally redesigned from an aesthetic point of view. It was not necessary. Once you’ve seen Alexa, you won’t forget it.
Berlin architecture and the desire for extremes
And so, if you look at the history of Berlin architecture without being blinded by the noble Schinkel myth, it is also an extremely Berlin building. The Schinkel myth states that Berlin architecture must be clear, rational, somewhat strict, at least classically clarified. In fact, there is also the exalted tradition in Berlin, the tearing away from serenity, the lust for extremes.
The Schlüterschen facades of the Berlin Palace or the Palais Kameke had an almost Roman Baroque swing, the Rococo of Sanssouci Palace does not fit into any manual, the Palais Thiede-Winkler in the posh Tiergarten district showed what ecstasy even the “German Renaissance” of historicism around 1890 was driven to could. The Tuschkastensiedlung Bruno Tauts, the expressionist Great Playhouse by Hans Poelzig with its stalactite architecture, the lively Philharmonie Hans Scharouns, the colorful residential mountains of the Märkisches Viertel, the trendy Friedrichstadt-Palast, the pointed-pointed Jewish Museum Daniel Libeskinds – they all represent the other Berlin, in which the radically individual, even the bizarre, received its value.
The Alexa and the Berlin cathedrals of consumption
The Alexa inherited another legacy: that of the modern department store construction from around 1880 to the First World War. The Tietz department store on Leipziger Strasse let one of the largest glass walls of the early modern age gleam, while the Wertheim on Leipziger Platz with long rows of neo-Gothic pillars became a unique and world-famous cathedral of consumption. The Tietz at Alexanderplatz, this historically rather proletarian place in Berlin, was a riotous neo-baroque shopping center, and from 1930 on Hermannplatz sparkling towers on the model of American high-rises stood out from the capped five-story sea of houses in Neukölln.
All of these buildings ignored what is classicist Berlin tradition, and they stood out. Nobody remembers the original shape of the KaDeWe – the Wertheim, on the other hand, is still a legend today.
The outrage over the colorful Alexa gave the Berlin traditionalists new fire. The first visible consequence was the outcome of the competition for the Humboldt Forum in 2008. Even its tender was so narrow that despite the outstanding task of creating a cultural center for post-colonial modernism, it did not attract any internationally renowned museum architects. In fact, all designs that had even the slightest hint of ecstasy, pop or irony – such as Hans Kollhoff’s giant theater or Jan Kleihues’ stone gorges – were systematically evaluated. Instead, Franco Stella’s hyper-angular architecture, barren to the point of wasteland, won.
Soon we will be debating about monument protection for the Alexa facades
Since then, it has been almost exclusively residential construction in Berlin where the aesthetic innovations, the attempts to be different, more exuberant, take place. In commercial architecture, on the other hand, and especially in that of the state, the rectangular scheme rules. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons why Alexa has remained such a success to this day: You don’t get bored here.
It will not be long before we will debate the preservation of historical monuments for its facades. And if the investors should come up with the idea of greening the previously barren roofs of Alexa, occupying apartments and a few studios for poor artists and heating them with solar panels – then this project could become a prime example of the currently required use of diversity will.